The maker of the world's coolest LCD TVs is now offering high-def-capable versions in screen sizes up to 42 inches. My favorite of the eight new design series is the 32-inch HANNSvibe ($1299), pictured here with its detachable speakers. HANNspree is also moving into plasma with the 50-inch HANNSskate ($4199). All big-screen models have ATSC and QAM tuners for reception of over-the-air and unencrypted cable channels. Also new from HANNspree are the G IT line of computer monitors from 15 to 23 inches, the seven-inch car-mount HANNSMobi with built-in DVD player, and the HANNSvidilink, a wireless 802.11a video transmitter and receiver that works at distances up to 300 feet. And the company is adding four Warner Bros. cartoon designs (including Bugs) to its Disney, NBA, and MLB series. The only thing the company isn't marketing is a TV based on my image and I expect to see that any day now.
As I wandered around the floor at the recent CEDIA Expo in Indianapolis, a theme emerged. By some remarkable coincidence, three different loudspeaker manufacturers were showing special models to celebrate multiple-decade anniversaries. The brands—Paradigm, KEF, and Wharfedale—continue to be formidable ones. They have been making some of the world's best speakers for a long time, and these anniversary products are worth celebrating. They all include monitors, which are right up my alley: My reference system is based on monitors. Unfortunately, most of these models (except KEF) will be made only in limited quantities. Moreover, they are sold only per pair, so if you want to use them in a 5.1 or other odd-numbered surround configuration, an extra speaker is going to languish in a closet. Therefore I won't be able to get them in for review. However, I'd like to celebrate them here and note their passage through the history of audio.
"Police blame iPod explosion for 5% rise in robberies," says a headline in The Guardian. Crime actually fell by two percent from April to June, according to figures from the Home Office, but the same period saw a five percent hike in robberies. One top cop attributed the bump to "the products that are available to be stolen these days. The mobile phone explosion is continuing. The iPod explosion is continuing. All of these gadgets that people carry around with them are very attractive to robbers, so that puts the opportunities up." To New York subway riders, this is old news—about a year and a half old, to be precise. It's hard to resist whipping out your 'Pod and putting it in harm's way when you're accessing MTA info the fun way.
HD DVD has adopted a Thomson-developed technology that would insert simulated film grain into high-def movie releases. The problem: Digital video compression codecs tend to lose the natural grain in film-based cinematography. The, um, uh, solution: "Thomson has come up with a way that allows the film grain to be put back, or at least simulated, into the movie after it's been compressed and decompressed," says Gavin Shutz of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. Film Grain Technology™ will appear in two HD DVD players from Toshiba and one from RCA. It has also found its way into Sonic Solutions HD DVD production tools. So even if you shun the fakery in players, it will still find its way into at least some movie titles. OK, I haven't seen it yet, but isn't fake film grain the aesthetic equivalent of artificial edge enhancement? What ever happened to the idea of reproducing the source as accurately as possible?
As tired as I am of hyping HD DVD and, um, that other one, the Toshiba-championed format will take a huge step forward on May 9 with Warner's first dual-format title. Rumor Has It will have high-def HD DVD on one side and standard-def DVD-Video on the other. What's great about it is that you can start building your HD DVD library now without having to spring for first-generation hardware, which is both feature-light and probably destined for price drops before year-end. The backward-compatibility move is reminiscent of hybrid SACD, which includes high-res audio on one layer and standard CD audio on the other. That helped SACD trump DVD-Audio, and the horrible DualDisc hasn't done much to help DVD-A to catch up. Of course, the format war undermined both of those formats, and HD DVD and Blu-ray seem headed in the same downward direction. But I must add: Only one of my systems is SACD-compatible, so I play both layers of my dozens of SACDs quite often. So there!
Manhattan's Upper West Side is home to many world-class attractions—Lincoln Center, the Museum of Natural History, and the Fairway cheese department, to name just a few—but electronics-industry press events are relatively rare. Yet there I was, a 15-minute walk from my apartment, in a store full of reporters getting Toshiba's marketing message about HD DVD. The event at P.C. Richard & Sons was day one of a 40-city roadshow that will be repeated in stores throughout the country. The highlight of the presentation was a split-screen comparison of high- and standard-definition material, including a boat that glided from one side of the screen to the other, acquiring depth and detail along the way. Consumers had already placed orders that day for players to be delivered in the last week of March, we were told. Contrary to a rumor reported here, an interim agreement on encryption keys will allow hardware and software manufacturers to move forward in tandem. Still unanswered are the two big questions: (1) Can either HD DVD or Blu-ray prosper in a format war? And (2) what impact will the down-res of component video output have on owners of early-generation HDTVs? Toshiba has a new HD DVD website here and Darryl Wilkinson offers more details here. I, however, got the free long-sleeved HD DVD T-shirt, available in a choice of emerald, rose, and blue-grey. Word up, Blu-ray people—this is going to be a hard T-shirt to beat.
The first pirated material from an HD DVD has been posted on BitTorrent. This latest battle in the digital rights management war began a month ago when a blogger told the world he'd hacked AACS, the DRM that protects both HD DVD and Blu-ray, as a means of getting the player to work with his DVI-in TV. Because AACS involves both firmware in the player and an encryption key in each disc, his BackupHDDVD utility was worthless without the keys. But now people are posting the encryption keys on the net and HD DVD is officially insecure. Blu-ray is not as badly affected, because it adds a second layer of protection called BD+. The news overshadows other recent HD DVD gains, including its first triple-layer 51GB disc and its embrace by the adult video industry.
Today Toshiba announced that it will discontinue marketing HD DVD players. What do you think will happen next? Will you buy a Blu-ray player? Do downloads look more attractive? And finally, those of you who have tried both HD DVD and Blu-ray, which offered the better user experience? Weigh in and tell us what you think. After all, it's your opinion that will determine what happens next in this epic saga.
There are ordinary mortals who throw Super Bowl parties. And then there is Pete Putman, occasional Home Theater contributor and the HDTV expert of hdtvexpert.com. He put the big game on nine different screens scattered throughout the house (and one outside it). So whose display chugged away in sub-freezing weather? Which had pride of place in Pete's workshop theater? How did the portable pocket projector do? And whose screen was featured in the bathroom, "positioned at an angle to viewers at the door, the sink, and on the throne"? Check out the fully illustrated story for yourself.
Are you an AT&T Homezone customer? If so, the set-top box you're using to access video-on-demand has learned a new trick: cellphone-activated DVR programming. There's no charge except for the existing Homezone charge of $9.99/month. AT&T hopes that will keep you happy until U-verse, its fiber/copper hybrid IP-over-TV service, reaches more areas. If you're a Verizon customer, you needn't feel left out. A long promised arrangement with TiVo will come to fruition soon. The charge will be $1.99/month. Sprint is getting into the act too, in association with Comcast and Time Warner. A Jupiter Research survey quoted by Reuters said fewer than 10 percent of respondents were excited about cell-driven DVR recording. Then again, none of them had had a chance to try it.
Do you flip the channel when a commercial comes on? Or use your DVR to fast-forward through ads? Get a load of this U.S. patent application from Philips: "The apparatus and method comprises an advertisement controller in a video playback device that prevents a viewer of a direct (non-recorded) broadcast from switching channels when an advertisement is displayed, and prevents a viewer of a recorded program from fast forwarding the recorded program in order to skip past advertisements that were recorded with the program." Wait, there's more: "A viewer may either watch the advertisements or pay a fee in order to be able to change channels or fast forward when the advertisements are being displayed." Of course, you still might use the mute button, or just flee the room screaming. Based on the Multimedia Home Platform, which uses digital flags to trigger interactive features, the "advertisement controller" may be built into DTVs, video recorders, cable boxes, satellite boxes, even Internet service. The patent app acknowledges that it may be "greatly resented."
Hitachi bills four new 42-inch plasma models as 1080-line-capable. The following information is for numbers-obsessed videoholics only: The relevant model numbers are 42HDF39 ($2299), 42HDS69 ($2499), 42HDT79 ($2999), and 42HDX99 ($5299). Nominally these are 1080i, as opposed to 1080p, displays though at 42 inches that distinction is negligible. However, it's the vertical resolution that's 1080 lines. Horizontal resolution is actually 1024 lines, as opposed to 1920 in the 1080i ATSC broadcast standard (1920 by 1080). So three of these models are 1024 by 1080, and the lowest-priced is actually 1024 by 1024. Got all that? The difference probably stems from the inherent limitations of Hitachi's highly rated plasma manufacturing technique, which involves vertical channels of pixels crisscrossed by horizontal lines of electrodes. I got a preview at last week's press event in New York though production models will not arrive till later in the year. Up close and personal, the prototype looked pretty spiffy. I could see the dots only from two or three feet. Beyond that the picture looked seamless. The bottom line is that these 42-inch plasmas can show 1080 lines in a test pattern. Try that with a crayon and a piece of paper. Bet you can't do it.
Warner Bros. will distribute movies and TV shows through BitTorrent, essentially adapting a technology developed for file sharing to legal use. BitTorrent's "file swarming" technique does not download entire files from a central server. Instead it assembles a piece of content using bits from several other computers in an ad hoc network. The company's first step toward respectability came last year, when it removed illegal movie content and links from its site at the, uh, ah, request of the Motion Picture Association of America. Soon you'll be able to file-swarm new movie titles on the same date as the DVD release (price not announced) or TV shows for a buck. The download may either sit on your hard drive temporarily, for a single use, or be backed up to a DVD, though it would still play only on the PC that recorded it. Whether the rules will evolve is uncertain, and no one's given a start date, but the concept seems promising. The studios are already dipping their toes in other forms of digital home distribution.
"My editor recently queried me about my TV set," wrote Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe. Shock, horror: This professional TV critic does his work with a 20-inch screen! And judging from the size, probably analog. Now, before you all pile on, be advised that Gilbert's decision to use a small screen is carefully considered: "Without a lot of sophisticated sensory overload, I think, a show's writing, acting, and editing stand out more clearly. I can stay in touch with the true marks of good storytelling, without having to parse them out from a dazzling barrage." More shock, more horror: I downsize a lot of my own viewing, though for different reasons. I watch movies on a 72-inch-wide Stewart Firehawk, but when I watch TV, I retreat to a less intense 32-inch LCD. Why? The reduction in scale eases both the headache-inducing quick cuts of advertising and the sorrows of real-life suicide bombings. Still, I think "the marks of good storytelling" are as perceptible on a big screen as on a small one—more, in fact, if you consider camerawork and other aspects of visual style as storytelling tools—and now that shows are being produced in (1) widescreen (2) HDTV and (3) surround, the Boston Globe's TV critic may be missing the boat.